Thai royals

Yummy food, problem royals: Stratfor on Thailand

In December 2011, members of the Anonymous hacktivist group penetrated the computer systems of Texas-based “global intelligence company” Stratfor and accessed more than five million e-mails. Over the past year, these e-mails have been published in batches by WikiLeaks, and several sensitive discussions relevant to Thailand are now available online.

Stratfor likes to give the impression that is a kind of CIA-for-hire, an omniscient agency with a vast global network of informed insiders, able to predict future developments with uncanny accuracy. In fact, it is a small and amateurish organization that delivers far less than it promises. It was founded by George Friedman, a former academic who in 2009 published The Next 100 Years, a book that claims to predict the key developments of the century ahead. Stratfor’s expertise is considerably less impressive than the firm likes to pretend. Matt Gertken, its former Southeast Asia analyst who appears in many of the e-mail exchanges on Thailand, was basically just a professional pundit and soundbite specialist with limited insight who claimed expertise in a ludicrously vast range of subjects including Japan, China, Asian finance and economics, social instability and unrest, global energy, Russia and Central Asia.

Friedman’s eccentric personality dominates Stratfor, and in line with his pseudo-scientific methodology the company seeks to explain Thai history — and predict the future — through immutable geographic and geopolitical trends. A few days after more than 20 people — including my Reuters colleague Hiro Muramoto, were killed in fighting between the army and unknown gunmen during a huge red shirt protest on April 10, 2010, Stratfor sought to explain Thailand’s upheavals in terms of “The Geography of Instability“. A similar type of analysis can be found in the lengthy article Geopolitics of Thailand: A Kingdom in Flux

But rather like the secret U.S. diplomatic cables on Thailand also shared by WikiLeaks, the main value of the Stratfor e-mails on Thailand is the glimpse it gives into private conversations on issues that cannot be publicly discussed: the political role of the monarchy, and the looming succession when King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies.

Amid rather banal historical determinist musings about Thailand’s development over the past thousand years, here is what Geopolitics of Thailand: A Kingdom in Flux has to say about the royal succession:

The eventual death of King Bhumibol presents the greatest immediate challenge to Thailand’s internal political stability. Bhumibol is the longest-reigning king on earth and his sway over public opinion has increased throughout his rule. But succession will create controversy. When Bhumibol dies, new uncertainty about the power structure in Thailand — the relative roles of the monarchy, the military, the civilian bureaucracy and the provinces — will emerge for the first time since the 1940s.

A pre-election analysis of Thai politics from mid-June 2011 states:

The new round of destabilization could be even more intense than previous ones because the recent instability is not driven solely by the election cycle, but rather by the deeper institutional ramifications of the impending death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, who has served as a unifying figure since 1946. Before Bhumibol there was a series of weak or short-lived monarchs, and thus there is enormous uncertainty as to what will happen when he dies, especially given popular misgivings about his son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, and questions as to whether the Princess Sirindhorn would not be a better successor. The military’s rise and Thaksin’s rise both reflect bids by the country’s most powerful interest groups to stake out a greater claim on the organs of power during this historic transition.

Thailand has managed to maintain remarkable stability beneath its tumultuous politics for decades. But the impending succession adds a dimension of uncertainty and institutional tension unknown in the post-World War II era.

A June 28, 2011, e-mail from analyst Jennifer Richmond shares comments from a “Source in Chiangmai” who is a “Civil-military affairs expert”:

-The US is pressuring Thailand on a democratic solution – something that would probably involve Thaksin promising to stay out of the country but allowing for some sort of power sharing arrangement with Pheu Thai. This won’t work.

-Prayuth is a mean mo-fo and Thaksin is hoping that he blows his top and will continue to prod him. It has been suggested that if Pheu Thai wins the military (and the Queen – more on this personality in a few days) will push for the courts to move on perjury charges. The judges seem aligned with both the military and the royalty. If this happens we can expect massive red-shirt protests in front of the courts. This is where Army-Chief Prayuth will be forced to intervene. If he doesn’t do so nicely things could seriously breakdown.

-The military has risen to power for numerous reasons and one reason revolves around the Cambodia issue – they are the protectors of the people and of the land. This has the backing of the royalty. This issue could definitely flare if things get sticky domestically.

-The most likely outcome with the election is that Pheu Thai wins and the military sits back for a while. Within a few months we’ll see the perjury charges come up. PMs have been forced to resign on less. This could lead to another person in Pheu Thai taking power – one less notable than Yingluck with whom the military can bargain.

-In all of Thailand’s history no one has ever won a majority like Thaksin. There is not going to be a neat and pretty ending any time soon.

-The Democrat Party doesn’t really have the backing of the royalty either.

-The Queen’s guard is pretty much in charge (Prayuth is her man) and she is calling a lot of shots. Yingluck cannot fire Prayuth because the royalty have to approve any new nomination and they will not approve anyone close to Pheu Thai.

-Despite insight earlier, this source said no one feel confident in the prince. Not even those in the royal family. Prem doesn’t like him. It  is said that he owes money to the big T himself.

A very interesting July 2011 exchange on Queen Sirkit begins with another e-mail from Jennifer Richmond sharing comments from her source in Chiang Mai:

The Queen is the most important decision-maker in the royal family. She’s been making decisions for the King for some time now and he seems to tacitly accept this. Most of the military that is now in charge are her former security forces.

She is said to be against her son’s appointment as the successor and he apparently openly criticized her and her conservatism some time ago and that was just unacceptable. Apparently this all happened after a video was released of his wife’s birthday party where he made her attend her own party in a g-string and cowboy hat – only and for the whole party. The video cropped up on the black market but anyone caught with it was in big trouble so its hard to find now.

He is considered a philanderer and playboy and it was this video that was the final straw for the Queen.

That said other sources, as noted previously have said that the princess will not accept a position if forced and will simply move overseas if it comes to this.

Also, the Queen really dislikes Thaksin and it has been rumored that it was at her suggestion that he was overthrown in 2006. Remember also the Prayuth is her man as is Prem.

A few days later, Stratfor’s Michael Wilson replies by sharing “some open source reporting that is similar” — my article in Foreign Policy magazine, Red Shirts and Rowdy Royals.

Matt Gertken then joins the discussion, cautioning against overstating the power of the monarchy and arguing that it is the military that really holds decisive power in Thailand:

The discussions of the palace’s extensive influence are really focusing intensely on Queen Sirikit right now, and that is understandable. But history shows that the army is what ultimately makes the decisions.

The monarchy went through tumult prior to Bhumibol’s rise to power in 1946. The earlier king was overthrown in 1933 and a secular govt ruled, then the monarchy was briefly restored, but the king at that time (Mahidol) was weak and mysteriously assassinated. Primarily in the 1950s, with American support, the military rose to prominence and solidified its position by means of a tight bond with Bhumibol. The palace was revived as a means of building public consent for a military-dominated regime. This is the establishment that is now coming apart at the seams.

What is currently happening is that some elements of the palace are working with the military to reconfigure and perpetuate the post-WWII system. The queen is supposedly taking a much greater decision making role, and she is associated with the top military figures, namely the two major military leaders, former army chief Prem Tinsulanonda and current chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who are both from the Queen’s Guard. The queen’s guard has become the most powerful faction within the military, and solidified its position ahead of the upcoming troubles when Prayuth secured the appointment in Oct 2010.

The primary danger is that the system is coming apart, with new rifts in the royalty as well as with the enormous pressure of democratization/globalization represented by Thaksin.

What we have to avoid is over-stating the monarchy’s ability to drive events. The monarchy is hugely important in terms of manufacturing public consent, its role is to provide national unity and public justification for the current regime. The military has used the monarchy, and the military needs the monarchy for a public front. They both fear that without each other they will lose out, against massive popularity of Thaksin-ism. But the military remains the most powerful force, it isn’t going to cede power. Egypt might be a fair example of what to expect.

Queen Sirikit’s role in Thai politics has diminished drastically since this exchange, and she has not been seen in public since a severe stroke on July 21 last year.

Matt Gertken appears to be rather unpopular with some Stratfor staff and averse to having his work edited, judging from a conversation about him between two other employees, and another exchange in which an editor tells Gertken, after receiving a long article from him:

No comments except that 840 words is quite a lot to say that the protests have fizzled. This could be trimmed considerably.

Gertken replies:

The piece says more than that. If you want to know that protests have fizzled you can read that anywhere. What we are doing is explaining why they fizzled, and why that doesn’t mean an end to protests or instability.

Finally, any illusions about the quality of Stratfor’s sources are spectacularly shattered by an e-mail in April 2009 from Reva Bhalla, the firm’s “Vice President of Global Analysis”. She suggests speaking to a woman working at the Thai Passion restaurant near Stratfor’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, to get insight into Thailand’s unfolding political crisis:

From: “Reva Bhalla” <>
To: “Analyst List” <>
Sent: Sunday, April 12, 2009 3:09:00 PM GMT -06:00 US/Canada Central
Subject: Re: Diary — Need Volunteer

carry out lunch from thai passion tomorrow. there is a girl who works there (one of the younger ones who usually is at the cashier) whose father and brother are high up in Gen. Sonthi’s division. she was pretty useful during the 2006 coup. would totally be worth trying to strike up a convo with her again to gauge mood of the military and get some yummy thai food while you’re at it :-)


  1. Hilarious. Stratfor are just another snout in the security industrial complex trough but they do nastier stuff like their infiltration of Bhopal activist group to smear them on behalf of DOW chemical.